"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Trump is conducting a symphony of chaos with no discernible tune"
I am, to put it mildly, fascinated by the accounts of the Trump presidency. Has any other serving president had so much written about them. Over the past couple of years, we've had 'Fire and Fury,' 'The Room Where it Happened,' 'Unhinged,' 'Too Much and Never Enough' and 'Fear'. There are many others.
Now comes 'Rage' from heavyweight political journalist Bob Woodward. Remember him? Yes, he's the guy who in 1974 helped bring down Nixon with Carl Bernstein — a story told in 'All The President's Men'.
Woodward wrote 'Fear' in 2018, without interviewing Trump. In that book, he portrayed Trump's presidency as 'chaotic and dysfunctional.' Woodward concluded that Trump was out of his depth, and couldn't recognise his predicament. Is this the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large?
Then, in a bizarre move, Trump agrees to give Woodward full access for this latest book. Between December 2019 and July 2020, Woodward conducted seventeen interviews with Trump. He recorded over nine hours of exchanges. Likewise, Woodward had free rein to speak with anyone in the administration.
Woodward treads a similar path to others in this genre; Trump comes across as unfocused and rudderless. In the end, Woodward concludes 'Trump is the wrong man for the job.' Bob, we all knew that, some time ago.
Where Woodward serves a purpose is when he fills in the detail to give weight to insights. For starters, the trajectory of Trump's hiring and firing follows a predictable pattern. In the beginning, nominees are 'awesome,' 'a great person,' and 'incredible.' Then reality takes hold. The hire realises their advice goes ignored, or they fail to agree to Trump's demands. Slowly at first, a drumbeat against them starts.
Then comes a steady increase in sniping and snide remarks. Even Tweets help to push home the message that someone is out of favour. Getting wind of their precarious position, honourable men offer to resign. Trump then acts fast to portray these resignations as firings. 'Glad he's gone,' 'I didn't like his leadership style.' It's petty, disagreeable, backbiting stuff. In the process, Trump proves in his world that loyalty is a one-way street.
Everything for Trump is transactional, wrapped in hype, and driven home with occasional bitterness. The WTO, WHO, EU, China, Mexico, Canada and NATO are 'all ripping us off and screwing us.' Atop that is the legendary bragging and outright lies. These are too many to list. To help, The Washington Post keeps a record of all Trump's misleading claims. It's a fun read.
Let us examine one signature policy initiative — 'The Wall' with Mexico. By mid-2020, it's still not there. How much is built? Well, that depends on how you do the maths. Trump would say 121.4 miles is complete, yet 99 miles of that is renovations and repairs. New sections amount to no more than ten miles. The border is 1,954 miles long. Some way to go. And not a cent has come from Mexico. Instead, Mexicans are stealing parts of the construction.
Woodward had unique access during the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. He chronicles in detail all the steps taken by Trump or rather the lack of action. As the deaths mount, Woodward challenges Trump to account for the evident failures, the lack of coordination and reversals.
On each occasion, Trump distracts, moves on or pivots to head off any admission. 'China is to blame' is the mantra. Such statements play well in the rust belt, where workers have lost jobs to cheap Chinese labour.
On this score, only one point sticks. Why people couldn't move from Wuhan to Beijing due to a lockdown, yet international flights out of Wuhan continued. It's a fair criticism.
Even when Woodward gives credit and acknowledges Trump made a tough call in late January 2020 to ban travel from China, the event gets twisted. Trump asserts he went against professional advice to do the 'right thing.' Strange how everyone else present recalls a reluctant Trump finally taking counsel.
I suppose if anyone comes out of this book well, for me, it's young Jared Kushner. Against my instincts, I must give him kudos. Kushner scores points for his focus, attention to detail and for providing a stunning insight. Kushner demonstrates he can marshal resources and gets the job done at critical moments. His timely work in coordinating the distribution of ventilators for Covid-19 patients illustrates the point. He soon puts in place a system, which keeps ahead of demand.
Then, Kushner inadvertently busts open the Trump phenomenon with a staggering and brutal insight. He cites four texts that a person needs to study to comprehend Trump. With these, we go deep down a rabbit hole, literally.
The first came from a Wall Street Journal article that says, in essence, 'Trump is crazy, and it's kinda working.' Second, is the Cheshire Cat from 'Alice in Wonderland' who proclaims "If you don't know where you're going, any path will do."
Next, Kushner recommends reading Chris Whipple's 'The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency'. Of course, Kushner is the de facto Chief of Staff. Last, you must digest the satirical Scott Adam's book 'Win Bigly; Persuasion in a World When Facts Don't Matter.'
According to Kushner, Trump's 'misstatements' of facts 'invent any reality' the voter wants. Moreover, Trump will never apologise, and if you call him a liar: well, that's because 'you always do.' It's akin to trying to fight a shifting cloud of gas.
Kushner observes that "The media can't hold Trump in check because he doesn't play by their rules." If they cross the line, they're ostracised. And because access for them is everything, Trump is prepared to cut them off.
One other thing, Kushner has a 'lean and hungry look.' Although a tad untutored on the broader world, he will learn. After all, he recently brought home a partial peace deal in the Middle East. He's somebody to watch.
At times during the interviews, you can hear that Woodward is attempting to school Trump. He repeats lessons from history, something Woodward at aged 77, and having dealt with every president since Nixon, is well placed to do. None of this appears to register with Trump, who displays few signs of introspection.
There is so much to pick over in this book. Not addressed, but something that needs acknowledging is the damage Trump has done to the USA's standing on the international stage. Many believe he has accelerated the rise of China by distancing allies under his 'America First' policy. This remarkable state of affairs has consequences which remain unclear.
In the end, I don't buy the argument that Trump is foolhardy. Far from it. He's a master of manipulation, can rouse a crowd and is ruthless. He's done many complex things in his life, while proving himself very stress resistant. Also, he's undoubtedly an odd man.
Nonetheless, he's taken the US out of the 'normative mild-incompetence' of moderate politicians into a new arena of constant struggle. Trump is conducting a symphony of chaos with no discernible tune. The question is, will the US electorate opt for a new conductor? We will know soon enough.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.